NEW YORK — The abrupt ouster of CNN boss Jeff Zucker over a workplace relationship has left some prominent contributors angry and uncertain about their network’s direction at a crucial moment.
The company is on the verge of changing ownership, launching a paid streaming service and replacing its most popular on-air host at a time of declining ratings.
On Thursday, it became clear that Zucker’s departure after nine years as CNN boss was anything but voluntary.
Zucker said he left the company because he violated company policy by not disclosing the nature of his relationship with his deputy, Allison Gollust. However, he was reportedly given no choice by WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who described the change as his decision at an emotional meeting with CNN Washington staffers Wednesday night. The Associated Press obtained an audio recording of that meeting.
The nature of that meeting, coupled with the fact that Zucker’s exit became a water cooler issue — former President Donald Trump released two statements on the matter — speaks to his unusual influence as a media executive.
“He was a larger-than-life figure in the political ecosystem, the media ecosystem, and CNN,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s School of Communication and former Zucker’s colleague at NBC News.
Kilar was peppered with questions from CNN staffers in Washington. They wondered if he sought advice from other executives, why Zucker was not given a grace period and whether alleged antipathies between the two men played a role in the decision, according to the recording.
“Given that these are two consenting adults… why is this a fireable offense?” asked White House reporter Kaitlan Collins.
TV host Jake Tapper said that Chris Cuomo — who was fired as CNN host in December for privately advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — essentially succeeded by threatening to embarrass the company bring, TV host Jake Tapper said disclosure of the relationship if no settlement fee was paid.
“How do we get past the perception that the bad guy wins here?” Tapper asked at the meeting.
Even some of the people named to temporarily replace Zucker — veteran CNN execs Michael Bass, Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz — spoke of his impact on the organization and said they would follow the direction he set.
Jautz said during the staff meeting that according to CNN founder Ted Turner, “Jeff has had more impact on this place than anyone, certainly more than any executive.”
CNN’s John King described Zucker’s practical influence on what was broadcast and his fear of the unknown without him.
“You may not agree with every decision,” King said at the meeting. “But you knew someone was going to make a decision, you’ll know which direction you’re going. And this company has had long periods where that didn’t exist, and these are awkward times.”
Selection of a new leader will ultimately rest with David Zaslav, who will be appointed to lead the new company formed from the upcoming merger of Discovery, Inc. and WarnerMedia.
But it means CNN is suddenly without its significant other as it prepares to launch streaming service CNN+ this spring. Zucker was active in building his functions and recruiting talent like former Fox News host Chris Wallace, and he would become a public cheerleader for it.
At the Washington meeting, Kilar described the launch of CNN+ as just as important as the beginnings of CNN itself. Adding to the challenge is that it is a paid service, while others in the industry, with the exception of Fox Nation, require access offer for free.
CNN also needs to replace Cuomo in its primetime lineup and is going ahead with a number of substitutes. Zucker recently approached Gayle King for the job before deciding to re-sign with CBS News.
The viewership of the TV channel has fallen dramatically in the past year. News ratings have always been cyclical, and the 2020 election brought record numbers of people, but there’s always the question of when, or if, they’ll come back.
CNN is also coming out of a contentious period, with Trump frequently labeling the network “fake news.” At the meeting with Kilar, CNN’s Jim Acosta said Zucker had taken a strong stand against the attacks and worried if anyone else would do the same.
CNN’s on-air staff under Zucker, like Acosta, has become much more opinionated, and that hasn’t always been popular.
“It’s interesting to see if that culture will change with new leadership,” said Jennifer Thomas, a journalism professor at Howard University who worked as a producer at CNN in the 2000s.
Some people, like Thomas, have called for a reset. One is influential cable exec John Malone, a top Discovery shareholder, who told CNBC in November, “I’d love to see CNN go back to being the kind of journalism it started out as.”
Lukasiewicz said he sees no reason to believe there will be a postponement. Most interesting is what the emergence of streaming as a news platform with a different audience will mean for the industry, he said.
It’s a difficult time for CNN to enter a period of interim leadership, Lukasiewicz said. But not all such turbulent times end negatively.
“Sometimes leadership change, while unwelcome right now, can lead to good things across the board,” he said.